Curio Cabinet: Myrtlewood

CC myrtlewood

The Curio Cabinet series (#curioTuesday) is published biweekly, featuring an artifact of natural or cultural history and a brief selection of nifty facts. Curio Cabinet celebrates the history of curio collections, the roots of which played a part in the globalization of learning and scientific knowledge. Learn more here.

Today’s curio:  fossilized myrtlewood (Umbellularia californica)
Type: mineral/plant
Origin: Western Coast, USA
Size: about 2.5 inches long

Myrtlewood has oodles of common names, including Oregon myrtle, California bay, California laurel, mountain laurel, pepperbush, cinnamon bush, baytree, and black myrtle. Whew! This is why it’s good to know your scientific names, kids. This tree is the only species in its genus, Umbellularia, and is a hardwood evergreen that’s native to California and Oregon. It isn’t as common as many of the other species that share its habitat, but it has a high wildlife value for birds and black-tailed deer (the leaves and twigs can be high in protein depending on the site).

Umbellularia, via Wiki

Umbellularia, via Wiki

The leaves have a distinct odor like that of bay leaves, which is the basis for some of those common names. Indigenous peoples of the western US used the plant medicinally for headaches, which earned it another nickname: headache tree. It was also used as an insect repellant, probably due to its strong smell. The large nuts are edible, and tribes ate both the meat of the fruit and the inner kernel.

Umbellularia fruit, via Wiki

Wood of California laurel is comparable to some eastern hardwoods in terms of machining quality, so it’s used regularly for a variety of crafts including dishware, gun stocks, and art. Rock collectors collect specimens like the one pictured at the top that have fossilized, where the wood actually changes into stone rather than leaving an impression in stone. I had trouble finding out just how far back Umbellularia goes in prehistoric terms, but from what I could gather, it’s been around since the early-to-mid section of the Cenozoic (the era we’re living in now, up to 65 million years ago).

I wish I could say I discovered this fossil in some epic circumstances, but.. a friend gave it to me. :) I’m not going to lie, I kind of wish I could pass this piece around to you all, because it’s so smooth and soft you’d never believe it was once wood!

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& some sources cited here

Posted on May 20, 2014, in Curio Collection, Flora and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Both the plant and the fossil version are beautiful! Thank you for sharing.


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